Cosmetic Counter SafetyThursday, June 05, 2008
The siren songs of the spring makeup collections are hard to resist. But think twice before sticking your finger into the lip gloss or eye shadow at the cosmetics counter.
There could be more lurking there than the latest shade of plum. Bacteria, including staph and E. coli, were uncovered in a two-year study of makeup counter samples conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Brooks, a biological sciences professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. "Every single time, we found E. coli. That was the one that was most repulsive to all of us," says Brooks, pointing out that this likely means the makeup was tried by someone who didn't wash their hands after using the rest room.
The study, completed last spring, was a class project for Brooks' students, who sampled and cultured cosmetic testers in 20 department stores and pharmacies. Bacterial contamination was found in every sampling, and at a higher rate on weekends, when the stores are busier. "There isn't a whole lot of health risk here. The only one I can really think of, and it's a real possibility, is bacterial conjunctivitis.
Also, any of these bacteria can cause acne," says Brooks. "It's just kind of the ick factor. I don't want this on my skin." Dr. Stuart Bender, chief of dermatology at Norwalk Hospital and assistant clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine, agrees that the risk of contracting an infection from contaminated makeup testers is low. "The most dangerous thing at the cosmetics counter is the sticker shock of what it costs," he says.
Bender says he typically sees patients with irritations or allergic reactions to cosmetics, but can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he's treated a patient for an infection caused by makeup in his 40 years of practicing. Prevention magazine, which wrote about Brooks' study in its April edition, found a makeup sales associate who contracted a nasty case of conjunctivitis, she believed, from using a makeup sample.
"Theoretically, almost anything that a tester had before you (sampled the makeup) can contaminate the makeup," says Amy O'Connor, deputy editor at Prevention. "Retailers who put these testers out are not to blame. They make every effort to keep these clean." Brooks agrees. "We as the consumer need to be a little more vigilant because the stores are doing what they can. The general population needs to educate itself," she says.
So how can you safely try cosmetics? Use common sense.
* Wash your hands with soap and water before and after using a makeup tester, or use a hand sanitizer.
* Try products on your hand, not your face, then hold your hand up to your face to see how the color looks. "Avoid the eyes and mouth at all costs," says Brooks. Says O'Connor: "Makeup is really expensive. It's very tempting to use the testers, but don't assume they are safe. Ask the salespeople for help."
* Bender recommends making sure that makeup artists put on a fresh pair of disposable gloves each time they help a customer, and use a cotton-tipped disposable applicator when applying products.
* Indeed, Dr. Robin Evans, a Stamford dermatologist, insists that makeup counter staff take steps to clean the makeup, and spray brushes or use a Q-Tip to apply products when she tests cosmetics. "The lips and eyes are much more of an issue than the cheeks," Evans says. "Obviously, the risk is there." She adds that she is unable to say how often people contract infections from contaminated makeup, but "I would say that of real significance are people whose immune systems are compromised. Maybe they should be staying wary."
* Some makeup artists undergo mandatory training, learning procedures such as sanitizing lipsticks by dipping them in alcohol and wiping them off; wiping the top layer off powdered cosmetics; sharpening eye pencils between uses; and encouraging customers to test the products on their hands instead of their faces. The applicators in lip glosses, mascaras or other products in tubes are removed; clients who want to test them use disposable applicators that have been designed to mimic the package's design. Brushes are washed after each use and deep-cleaned nightly.
* In addition, makeup artists must wash their hands before completing a customer makeover, and use disposable applicators to apply the various products.
* Makeup brushes should be deep-cleaned each night, and lipsticks are sanitized in alcohol and wiped clean before a customer tries them. Customers are also urged to use disposable applicators when testing skin-care products. Katharina Gross, a beauty adviser at Douglas Cosmetics, acknowledges how tempting it is to try new colors: "A lot of times when women come in to a place like this, it's like a candy store." Still, Gross is amazed by the number of customers who will put the products on their faces using their hands -- or smear a lip gloss on the back of their hand, but then take it from there and apply it to their lips. "They're like petri dishes," Gross says of the testers, "but there's only so much you can do."
Brooks is not allowed to say which companies' products she tested, but acknowledges that the study's findings had quite an impact on her and her students. "There is one student who is going on to medical school in fall, who loves makeup, who said, 'I will never put anything on my face again,' " she says.
Photos taken from Google photo library